Veteran forward Mistie Bass, who competed on the 2014 WNBA Championship-winning Phoenix Mercury team, asked a great question on Twitter recently.
Random question: As a Women’s Basketball coach in HS or College...Do you watch the WNBA? Do you encourage your players to pay attention? If not WHY???— Mistie Bass (@A_Phoenix_Born) April 21, 2018
Perhaps her intention was to address an issue with younger female players when it comes to teaching and learning the fundamentals of basketball. But many of those who responded had taken her tweet as a means to address the general exclusion of women’s basketball from so many conversations (as had I).
And then a student-coach with the Lady Vols issued what amounts to a plea.
PARENTS: Please, please, please get your little girls involved in watching the @WNBA. I want to be able to ask young, female basketball players who their favorite basketball player is & hear Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne, not LBJ, Steph, or KD!— Caleb Currier (@CalebCurrier) April 26, 2018
From both tweets, we can infer that our society is so conditioned on basketball being an endeavor for men that even young women and girls are apathetic to the doings of some of the greatest, most skilled athletes on the planet.
But Caleb Currier’s plea must be taken a step further.
We need to get young girls AND young boys involved in watching WNBA basketball. As a society, we should be embarrassed that most young boys — when asked who their favorite players are — do not utter the names Brittney Griner, Nneka Ogwumike or Breanna Stewart.
What is going on here? A linguistic breakdown
It’s not so much that US culture has fully-wayward views of women’s sports. It’s that women’s sports are excluded from the conversation to the point of erasure.
Exclusion happens when the default narrative, and the default language that crafts the narrative, connects simple words of the English language with a gender — masculinity (men) or femininity (women).
Some of the words that often have a male connotation include: sports, basketball and soccer.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when people hear words like gymnastics and ice skating, they think of women and femininity. Thus, when certain words are mentioned and the majority of society has gender-biased views tied to them, half of the population gets excluded from the conversation.
Ice skating: Men get excluded.
Basketball: Women get excluded.
Examined in a more specific context, when someone says, One of the best basketball players to ever play the game, people automatically think of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry or Kobe Bryant. Sadly, they do not think of Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi or Candace Parker.
To refer to women’s basketball players, the phrase would be: One of the best women’s basketball players to ever play the game. In other words, when people discuss or write basic words — free of any inherent meaning connected to gender — gender gets implied anyway.
Most often, women are the ones who get erased, and we got here through centuries of cultural conditioning.
The country was founded by men, with the interests of men in mind. Men wrote the narrative and assigned the roles of “appropriate” behavior for men and women. Many women over many decades had to crack a lot of glass ceilings — and climb through the shards — before a word like doctor did not always lead to the assumption of a male physician, and a word like teacher did not always lead to the assumption of a female educator.
Enough women became doctors and enough men became teachers until the cultural stereotypes about these professions and the people who occupy them were smashed. Rarely, if ever, do we hear the words female doctor or male teacher anymore (unless the person’s maleness or femaleness is pertinent to the story).
Yet, with sports — a space of American life firmly rooted in narrowly-defined notions about strength and masculinity — the collective cultural mindset has been slow to change.
Simple solutions to an age-old problem
Words, and how we use them, frame our views of the world, influence our actions and impact the collective cultural mindset.
The issue unique to sports, however, is that women and men do not play in the same leagues (the way both female and male doctors work in hospitals and both male and female teachers work in schools).
Women play professionally in the WNBA and men play professionally in the NBA. But because people assume the words basketball and greatest shooter of all time unilaterally refer to the NBA/men, it is imperative that we change our words to change the narrative —and, therefore, these sticky societal ills.
The change must start with media (and media influencers), but carry forward to the word choices teachers make in their classrooms and those we write and speak in our daily lives.
We musk ask ourselves how our word choices are conditioning our beliefs.
The tennis world has done a great job of referring to men’s tennis and women’s tennis — not just to tennis (with assumed, male connotations). Perhaps, one-by-one, media people will begin referring to the NBA as men’s basketball — totally omitting a generalized basketball bestowed with male implications.
The WNBA already is referred to as women’s basketball.
So, no — LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are not some of the best basketball players on the planet — they are some of the best men’s basketball players on the planet (just as Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart are some of the best women’s basketball players).